Posted tagged ‘Electricity’

Residential Customers are Reshaping NH’s Electricity Market

July 9, 2013

You can’t write about energy debates in New Hampshire without writing about the largest provider of electricity in the state – Public Service Co. of NH.  This is not an anti-PSNH post, they already have enough people calling for their heads and I am uncomfortable among crowds.  I have known and worked with too many good PSNH employees to want to “pile on” with criticisms and even if I did the company has too sophisticated a public and community relations operation to be concerned with the writings of a blogger.   By way of disclosure, I am not currently involved either professionally or personally in any issue that directly affects PSNH.  I am, however, intensely interested in energy markets and energy policy in NH and the nation.

The NH Public Utilities Commission and Public Service Company of New Hampshire have sharply differing views on the outlook for the electricity market and what should be done about it.  Whichever view is deemed more accurate by the PUC will likely determine the how electricity markets are regulated and deregulated in NH in the coming years.   In this post I look briefly at the most prominent issue facing customers, regulators, and PSNH,  and the issue at the heart of what will be the most important policy debates (no offense Northern Pass proponents and opponents) over the electricity market in the state.

For decades electricity markets were affected much more by large commercial and industrial customers than by residential customers but that has chganged.  As I suggested at the beginning of the year in my post “The Coming Consumerism of Residential Electricity Customers”, competition for residential electricity customers would likely accelerate in NH.  As the chart below indicates, the migration of residential electricity customers away from PSNH has been accelerating and the implications are enormous.

residential customers

As PSNH’s electricity customers switch to competitive suppliers revenues decline, and  more importantly for the future of the market, the customer base shrinks.  For a company like PSNH with high “fixed costs” in electricity generating plants and other system costs, these fixed costs do not shrink with a reduction in electricity sales or a decline in the customer base .  The result is that fixed costs are recovered from a smaller number of customers which of course leads to higher prices and a further migration of customers and still greater costs for the smaller number of customers of that remain.  For an electricity provider with high fixed costs and a regulatory system that allows those fixed costs to be recovered from its customer base, revenues will not decline in proportion to declines in electricity sales.   As the chart below shows, the decline in PSNH’s electricity sales has been much larger than has been the decline in its revenues from electricity sales.

Energy sales and revenues

When revenues decline more slowly than do sales of electricity, the revenue derived per unit of electricity sold increases, despite a decline in both sales and revenues.

revenue per MWh

That can temporarily help cushion an electricity provider from the impacts of declining customers and sales but  is not a sustainable long-term strategy or good thing for customers and the economy.  It seems that both PSNH and the Public Utilities Commission agree on that.  What they don’t agree on is how long these trends will last, how far they will go, and most importantly, what to do about them.  Some of these issues will be topics of future blog posts.

The Outlook for Natural Gas Prices in New England

May 3, 2013

There is a lot of discussion, debate, advocacy and lobbying about whether New England’s energy future is becoming more vulnerable because of the region’s increasing reliance on natural gas for electricity generation.   Some see the prospect of rising natural gas prices (because of increasing demand in the region and nationally) as a vulnerability and others are concerned about constraints on the pipelines that bring natural gas into the region.  I’ve posted a lot about natural gas and electricity related issues and as I have previously stated my belief that regional increases in demand along with greater U.S. production of natural gas are more likely than not to create scenarios that will increase the capacity of the regional pipeline infrastructure. New England has traditionally been a region with a relatively low percentage of its energy consumption in the form of natural gas.  That is changing rapidly, but increases in U.S. production of natural gas along with demand driven incentives to increase infrastructure capacity in the region should reduce a lot of the volatility of natural gas prices in New England.

Apparently there are other folks who feel similarly.  The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) released its “Annual Energy Outlook” last month and it has a wealth of historical data, forecasts and projections.   Their forecast of natural gas prices across the country are based on many economic, energy demand, production and other variables.  They also produce a range of forecasts based on different assumptions about economic growth , energy demand and prices.  The good news is that their baseline forecast for natural gas prices in New England (chart below) shows that  prices in the region, which are traditionally higher than in most other regions of the country, are expected to align with the national average early in the next decade, and then move lower than the national average over time.  Even better news is that this forecast is not dependent on a much weaker economy in New England than in the rest of the country (which would imply lower increases in energy demand in the region compared to the rest of the country).  I don’t think EIA would be forecasting lower relative prices in New England if they did not see  region’s pipeline infrastructure issue as being addressed.
NE Nat Gas Price vs US Forecast
The EIA also projects that the price of natural gas relative to coal will continue to increase.  Coal will probably almost always be a cheaper fuel than natural gas but today’s typical “combined-cycle” natural gas generating facilities are much more efficient than coal-fired plants.  When the ratio of natural gas prices to coal prices is approximately 1.5 or lower, a typical natural gas-fired combined-cycle plant has lower generating costs than a typical coal-fired plant.   Natural gas-fired electricity generators enjoyed a strong competitive advantage over coal plants in 2012 but natural gas plants will begin to lose competitive advantage over time, as natural gas prices increase relative to coal prices.    The retirement of older coal-fired generating plants, however, will mean that coal continues to generate a smaller percentage of the region’s and the nation’s electricity.

Some see New England’s increased use of natural gas as a concern.  There are issues that need to be addressed but none that are insurmountable or that should have the region reconsider its increasing reliance on natural gas.  Long-range energy price forecasts are notoriously difficult but New England’s energy needs and interests are finally becoming more aligned with the rest of the nation.  For too long New England has been an anomaly as the most oil-dependent and least natural gas-dependent region in the country.  Personally, I would rather have 300 million people concerned about my energy needs than just 15 million.

Electricity Prices Highlight the Benefits of Markets and Choice

March 28, 2013

Four of the six New England states (CT,ME, MA and NH) had lower average retail prices for residential electricity customers in January of 2013 than they did in January of 2012 (chart below).

Chang in Avg Retail Price of Electricity

Most of that is a result of the increasing sales into the region’s electricity market  of electricity generated by natural gas which is priced lower than the electricity generated using other sources.  The decline in the average price in NH is smaller than in some other states but it could have been, and could still be,  larger if retail competition in the residential electricity market takes hold.   The chart below shows the average cost of retail electricity for residential customers in the continental United States in January of 2013.  New Hampshire and all of New England have among the highest average rates but based on the contract information from the largest competitive suppliers of residential electricity in New Hampshire, the average price would be significantly lower (at least until November of 2013) for those who choose the lowest rates available from competitive suppliers (other higher rates are available that let customers choose to purchase a higher percentage of electricity generated from ‘green” sources).

Avg Residential Price of Electrictyby State

I was going to make this a much longer post and include a discussion of why the warnings by some about an “over-reliance” on natural gas in the region are overstated but not inaccurate (the natural gas pipeline limitations to the region are real but more likely to be remedied than not with increased natural gas usage in the region) but I will save that for another day.  The reputation and belief in free(er) markets and competition have taken a beating over the past several years so  for now I am just going to enjoy highlighting  of  one of their recent successes.

Between a (Black) Rock and a Hard Place

March 19, 2013

If I am the state’s largest electric utility I have to be hoping that the limited natural gas pipeline infrastructure that supplies the New England market never gets expanded, that shale gas production has even more environmental impacts than it appears to now, or preferably both.  I’ve written probably too many times about the electric power industry (as well as the commercial and industrial sectors) switching to natural gas (primarily at the expense of coal but also oil) because of its lower carbon intensity and significant decline in price over the past decade.  Increased demand for natural gas along with New England’s limited pipeline infrastructure have caused natural gas prices to rise in New England more than in most other parts of the country but I don’t think that is reason to “jump ship” from natural gas.   Natural gas production is increasing and it will likely be sometime early in the next decade before the increase in demand for natural gas in this country outstrips growth in supply (even though it feels like it in New England because of our pipeline limits).  Coal is cheaper and becoming cheaper still for good reason, the demand for coal as a fuel for electricity production is declining rapidly and despite being a lower cost fuel, that doesn’t mean facilities that burn coal can sell electricity more cheaply than can producers using more expensive fuel.

I  briefly noted how electric power gets sold into regional markets in an early post.  The Cliff Notes version of that is this: The suppliers of electricity (generating companies) in a region offer to supply electricity to the market at a given price and the offers are accepted beginning with the lowest cost providers first, until enough energy is supplied to meet expected demand in the region.  The price of electricity offered by the last electricity generator needed to meet the regional demand determines the market price paid by companies that supply the electricity to businesses and consumers.

So here is the rock (black) – our state’s largest utility has a large generating facility that burns cheap coal but because it costs a lot to burn coal in a way that doesn’t make NH look like Beijing on a bad day, the price of that electricity is high relative to other electricity producers in the region who are also offering their electricity in the regional market (primarily natural gas  generators).  The electricity generated by the coal burning facility has increasingly not been sold into the regional market.  As the graph below shows, the longer-term trend indicates that the percentage of New England’s electricity that is generated by Merrimack Station has been cut by more than half.  It is a 12 month moving average to smooth the results and prevent readers from getting nauseous from bouncing lines, but the trend is clear and troubling if you are a generator with a coal-burning facility.

Merrimack Station

The “hard place” is the growing loss of its residential customer base as retail competition finally takes hold.  A lot was made of the financial difficulties of one competitive supplier to NH’s residential market and the resulting return of its customers to the default service provider, but anyone who thinks that is going to stop the train from leaving the station is going to find themselves looking for another way to get to their destination.

When your generating business is weakening and your retail business is declining, all that is really left for growth is your transmission business.

The Stone Age Didn’t End Because of a Shortage of Stones

January 24, 2013

The operator of the New England power grid (ISO New England) issued a media release yesterday noting that because of the decline in natural gas prices, overall, wholesale electricity prices in the region dropped in 2012.  Reader”s” (if there is more than one) of this blog know I write a lot about energy issues and have noted the trends and benefits of natural gas to energy prices in the region (here, here, here, and here as well as in posts about other energy issues).

Increased U.S. production of natural gas has resulted in price declines and price declines are resulting in more fuel switching that will put more pressure on the price of natural gas unless production increases faster than increased demand.  U.S. production of  natural gas is likely to continue to increase faster than other fossil fuels (see chart below), but increased fuel switching will put more pressure on natural gas prices.

US fossil fuel production

One problem for New England is that our infrastructure for delivering natural gas to the region is the weakest of any region of the country and one result is that unless or until that changes, we won’t benefit as much as other regions from increased production.  The chart below shows a forecast of real, inflation adjusted fossil fuel prices to 2040.  Nationally, natural gas prices will rise faster than coal, but more slowly than oil.  The natural gas price trends here are for prices at Louisiana’s  Henry Hub distribution point (the reference price for natural gas prices), New England prices are higher but the question is, how much faster or slower will they grow in New England?  Improved infrastructure would help.

US fossil fuel prices

Coal is abundant and prices will grow relatively more slowly, but the economics of coal as an energy source still don’t give it an advantage over gas.  Over the next 3-5 years over 200 coal-fired electric generating plants will be retired according to a coal trade group.  They blame environmental regulations but there is more to it than that.  Besides the greatly narrowed gap in fuel costs between natural gas and coal, the fact is most people don’t want coal used, or have it used near them.  The cost of burning coal more cleanly is relatively high (it’s not just regulators that impose those costs, it’s the only way a majority of the public will support coal and if it costs too much they wont support it as long as there are more competitively priced alternatives – as there are now). Finally the cost of constructing a coal plant, compared to combined-cycle natural gas power plants is much higher (even without the new equipment required to reduce emissions) and they take longer to build 4-5 years compared to 2-3 years for natural gas, making financing of such projects more difficult.

I am not a coal hater.  Although I have worked on many more combined-cycle natural gas electric generating plants, I have also worked on two or three electric generating projects that burn coal, most recently one involving super-critical clean coal technologies and carbon capturing,  but phasing out older, less efficient, coal-fired plants makes perfect sense and can be done over time without jeopardizing the reliability of the grid if new natural-gas fired plants are built.  Relying just on natural gas doesn’t solve our  CO2 problem but it helps (ok deniers, let loose – I am a believer that CO2 is a problem that needs to be addressed).

The point of this post (by now you are probably asking if there is one) is that fossil fuels are not going away anytime soon.  Not too long ago there were apocalyptic predictions about the availability of fossil fuels in the future.  Those predictions aren’t proving accurate but at some point fossil fuels will run out.  Not in my lifetime, which is a good thing for my business as long as I still can get hired to work on natural gas or (gasp) coal-fired electric generating projects.   But more abundant fossil fuel doesn’t (or shouldn’t) lessen environmental concerns over its usage.  The stone age didn’t end because of a shortage of stones and the fossil fuel age shouldn’t wait to end until we run out of it.  Somebody will have to pay for developing new technology that ends the fossil fuel age.  Unless we start now,  the cost of the U.S. debt that we pass down to future generations will look small compared to the costs of developing new energy technologies that we will be passing down in the face of genuine declines in fossil fuels.  It is not just a matter of  increasing renewable energy,  although that will help.  Solar and wind and even hydro generation suffer from over/under demand issues.  Balancing power output to need is extremely problematic once you try to get renewable power above 20% of total generation, new technologies need to be developed.

The stone age was replaced because newer and better technologies were developed despite an abundance of stones, lets hope the same is true for the fossil fuel age.

We Need Better Incentives for Households to Reduce Electricty Consumption

January 14, 2013

Just like the NH and US economies are producing more goods and services with less and less energy content (as measured in BTUs per dollar of gross domestic product), so too is the NH economy producing more goods and services with the same or less electricity content.  As the chart below shows,  over the previous decade the total electricity consumed in NH (in kwhs) increased by just over 7%  while real gross state product increased over 36%.  The result is that electricity content (in terms of khws) per dollar of real NH GDP declined during the decade.

Electricity Consumption and Expenditures in NHl

Conservation and a changing industry mix have gone a long way toward restraining electricity consumption but a steep recession also contributed.  High electricity prices play a role in creating incentives for conservation but as the chart also shows, despite only a 7% increase in electricity consumption during the decade, total expenditures on electricity in NH increased by over 40% while expenditures by residential customers increased by over 50% during the decade.  Unfortunately, in a regulated market that guarantees a rate of return for some producers of electricity and which depends on variable  fuel costs, consumption of electricity and expenditures on electricity do not (for long) show the negative relationship that they do in many markets.  I think this tends to discourages household conservation efforts because they see less evidence of the payback from their efforts, even less so than say in oil and gasoline markets.  With gasoline or heating oil markets an individual or household can take steps to reduce consumption that yield tangible results in terms of reducing energy expenditures.  Reducing oil or gasoline consumption won’t always reduce absolute expenditures, as in the case of very dramatic price spikes seen in the recent past, but consumers at least see (and feel) a direct impact on their cash outlays as a result of their conservation or consumption behaviors.  But how do financial incentives for conservation affect  consumers of electricity when guaranteed rates of return allow for electricity prices that offset the impact on expenditures of their conservation efforts?   I think they produce what appears to be happening now in NH, the conservation efforts transform into just a  quest for lower prices.   Electricity consumers seek lower-cost providers of electricity who may not offer ceilings on future prices but who also don’t set a floor on prices because of guaranteed returns or because a shrinking base of customers requires guaranteed returns be paid for by fewer customers.  I am all for lower electricity prices but I get to call myself an environmentalist when I support incentives for conservation.  Such incentives will work best when they don’t yield only intermittent or temporary benefits

I don’t know whether the proposed Northern Pass Transmission Project (NPT) will actually result in lower prices for wholesale electricity or not.  I’ve seen conflicting studies from proponents and opponents (by way of disclosure I conducted a study of the NPT employment impacts for competitors of the companies planning NPT but I did not examine impacts on electricity prices nor do I have any contracts or agreements with anyone opposing or competing with NPT).  I do know that NH spent an estimated $1.616 billion on electricity in 2010 (the last year for which data is available from the U.S. Energy Information Agency).

NH Electricity Expenditures

That means if proponents of NPT are correct, and wholesale electricity prices in NH are reduced by about $25 million, and that wholesale price results in a similar reduction in retail electricity prices (?), then electricity expenditures in NH would be about 1.5% lower then they otherwise would be.  Whether illusory or not, given the consumption and expenditure trends lines above, it is hard to see that this impact on wholesale electricity prices will have much of an impact on the high cost of electricity in NH.

The Coming “Consumerism” of Residential Electricty Customers

January 9, 2013

It is no secret that the price of electricity in New Hampshire in relation to prices in most of  the U.S. is high.  That is true for all types of consumers of electricity, residential, commercial, and industrial, but prices for industrial customers were especially high compared to prices across the country.  New England is known for high energy prices but New Hampshire’s electricity prices compare more favorably to the region than they do to other regions and states.  Industrial consumers of electricity in NH, however,  seemed to pay relatively higher prices in comparison to industrial consumers across New England.  Over the last half of the past decade that  changed.  Either because of competition for industrial customers, special rates, or other reasons, the relative price of electricity for industrial customers in NH fell significantly in relation to average prices in New England and are now (through 2011) just below the regional average.  For residential consumers price trends are different.  Compared to the New England average, prices per kwh were relatively low for NH’s residential consumers, but they have been rising and are now (through 2011) just above the New England average.

NH Electricity Prices as a Pct of NE

The price competition that has benefited industrial consumers of electricity in NH is likely partially responsible for the rising prices and higher relative prices facing residential customers. Prices for residential consumers seemed to rise more just as  prices for industrial consumers fell.   As a result, as is being reported in a number of media outlets, competition is becoming more robust in NH for residential consumers of electricity.  That will eventually result in lower or more slowly growing average electricity prices for NH’s residential customers.   Competition does lower prices but it will only do so  for those who actively  participate in the competitive market.  Just like a car dealer,  electric utilities will look for someone to pay the full “sticker price” for every consumer who gets a “deal”.


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